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Associations Are Increasingly Emphasizing DEI

Diverse group of people in a crowd.

Associations are often like a microcosm of larger society. 

They have governing bodies, commerce-producing units, educational institutions and rank-and-file members akin to citizens of a nation.

Also, like in a larger society, ensuring DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, is an ongoing challenge of increasing focus and critical relevance, with some “nations” perhaps further along in the process than others.

Mark Engle, principal of Association Management Center.
Mark Engle

“From a strategy standpoint, DEI is critical. It’s an opportunity for growth in leadership and growth in attendance and purchasing, so why are we leaving this off the table? Strategically, can you afford to not pay attention to DEI as an opportunity?” asked Mark Engle, principal of Association Management Center (AMC), a for-profit company that manages nonprofits such as associations, of which they have 30 clients. “But it should be more than a strategy; it should be a value. You can always delay or deny a strategy, but you can’t do that with a value because it’s who you are.”

A major hurdle is the makeup of governing boards, which are often comprised of longtime members selected by other longtime members who vote for leaders that come from a similar background as themselves.

[Related: Q&A With Rich Luna on ASAE's DELP Program]

“We were doing a town hall with a medical group a couple weeks ago with about 300 people on the call, discussing the changing of its governance model, and they all look like me,” Engle, who is white, said.
Engle noted that many associations are moving toward a “slate” model to choose their board, which MPI recently adopted in a mixed version in which a committee selects slates.

The need for diversity also expands well beyond race, including different professional backgrounds and ages. Proponents of slate board elections, in which different blocks of candidates are selected and members vote for the slate that most appeals to them, or can vote up or down or contest a specific slate, say that the strategy helps decrease personal bias.

Zoe Moore, Grow With ZOMO.
Zoe Moore

“If you’re looking for a popular election, if they’re an academic [and you’re an academic], you vote for an academic,” Engle said regarding the role bias can play in such board election formats. “I was recently on a call, and the first person to speak up said ‘I was the president of this association 35 years ago,’ which means he’s probably 80 years old. The next person was 32 years old, [and I can imagine them thinking] ‘I’m Black and I have three young kids. I’m not going to engage in this organization like you did. How are you going to change?’”

DEI consultant Zoe Moore, owner of Grow With Zomo and Moore Consulting Agency, emphasizes that while diversity certainly includes the racial makeup of any organization, it goes much deeper.

[Related: 8 Objectives to Help Align Your DEI Strategy and Business Needs]

“I want people to understand that if we have the same phenotype for the last 100 years, what type of lens are they looking through? What are their values?” Moore asked. “It is more than the color of your skin. It’s your values of where we are as a society aligned with where we are now.”

The Scope of the Issue

One person who has covered the associations industry for years is KiKi L'Italien, CEO of digital strategy firm Amplified Growth and host of association podcast Association Chat.

KiKi L'Italien, Association Chat.
KiKi L'Italien

L'Italien, who also is a consultant for association management firm Tecker International, has her finger on the pulse of the association world, and has noticed a seismic shift in its prioritization of DEI.

"One client we have, a large trade association, has done away with their specific groups centered around underserved segments, and instead has integrated their DEIA efforts into every group so that there isn't a chance of unintentionally 'siloing' their efforts for more inclusivity," L'Italien said, adding an A (for accessibility) to the DEI initialism, which is a trend for many in the DEI space.

[Related: 2022 Meetings Trendsetters]

"In the Association Chat community, I'm seeing a lot of questions about statements—whether to do one or not—and sharing how some associations choose to handle politically charged issues that touch on DEIA," she continued. "There has been a backlash against some associations who have issued big DEIA statements that are now seen as having no teeth and instead being more performative. So association executives are skittish about just posting a statement that could be perceived as being a Band-Aid for deeper change or misconstrued later."

Where to Begin

Derrick Johnson, director of events at Virtual Inc. and CEO of the Organization for Social Empact, and who consults for AMC, maintains that the best way for an association to start their DEI journey is, to borrow that old Chinese proverb, to just take that first step.

Derrick Johnson, Virtual, Inc.
Derrick Johnson

“A lot of them just don’t know where to start,” Johnson said. “That is a parallel to associations themselves. The biggest thing is for them to start somewhere.

“As it relates to associations, I’m finding those groups that are committed to it are putting resources behind the effort, allowing staff to execute task forces and communities, and adding senior leadership personnel to make sure DEI is in the DNA of the organization in all areas, and there is accountability for it,” he added. “There are groups that are adding chief diversity officers to their roles or whatever those titles may be. But there are groups that don’t know where to start and are in that space of ambiguity.”

[Related: The Critical Importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Meetings and Hospitality Industries]

Johnson echoes the assertion that DEI goes beyond just the racial composition of leadership and should also be a pillar of an association.

“It’s not just a strategy, but it’s a value, for every entity, every person within the association. The idea is that diversity is beyond just skin color and is looking beyond the same type of person in leadership,” he said. “We need to push for diversity in all types, and that gets to equity and the strategies associations implement to serve members.”

Johnson also serves on the EIC’s Equity Task Force and helped develop its DEI acceleration plan and benchmarking study, among other roles. He also stresses that we should broaden the initialism of DEI to include an “A” for accessibility. 

Moore also believes accessibility should be core to DEI, and in the events realm, ensuring elements such as ramps for staging at events and other accessibility-focused concerns are addressed.

[Related: Why Data-Driven Assessments Are the Key to DEI Strategies]

Put It In Your RFP

A very practical way to help foster positive DEIA is to include questions on meeting and event RFPs.

“Planners are ensuring in their RFPs that they’re asking the right questions of vendors,” Johnson said. “The HRC [Human Rights Campaign] Municipal Equality Index is a great tool that measures a destination’s support for the LGBTQ community. Knowing these things in the search process helps guide and educate not only the internal staff, but also the community [in which the meeting is held].”

Johnson added that the association he chairs, LGBT Meeting Professionals Association, has taken a stance in step with its partners, such as the DMOs representing Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami, Florida, to leverage their influence and make sure planners are aware of LGBTQ issues that are happening in that state.

Zoom In

Maunda Land, Land Consultants.
Maunda Land

Maunda Land // President and CEO

Land Consultants

ASAE, the association of associations, if you will, has championed DEI for years, including its DELP (Diversity Executive Leadership Program) program, supporting individuals from under-represented identity groups to advance in leadership positions in the association management profession.

The association committed to redesigning DELP in 2021 to better align with ASAE’s new strategic plan and program of work, and brought on Maunda Land, president and CEO of Land Consultants, to lead the effort.

Meetings Today touched base with Land for a brief Q&A about why DEI is so critical to ASAE as well as associations in general. 

Meetings Today: What type of policy/strategy does ASAE maintain regarding DEI within the association

Maunda Land: ASAE believes that associations should seek a Conscious Inclusion approach to their DEI strategy. Conscious Inclusion is taking a pro-active, systematic, integrated approach to the business of advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. ASAE seeks to provide support to associations that want to execute a practical strategy for leveraging DEI to achieve superior outcomes.  
What resources are available for association members to learn more about DEI and implement a strategy in their associations?

ASAE will be launching several programs to support associations in advancing their DEI efforts by launching two Conscious Inclusion Summits held in December 2022 and spring 2023. These summits will bring together association leaders, including CEOs, COOs and diversity teams, to help associations build and/or advance their DEI strategies. The summit will also help leaders understand how to create an inclusive and welcoming organizational culture.
Are there any standout associations in terms of DEI?

ASAE has been advancing DEI for over 30 years and has some great success stories of developing underrepresented association professionals through the Diversity Executive Leadership Program (DELP) program, which provides resources, exposure and mentorship to underrepresented association leaders.    
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) has made a strong commitment to DEI internally for their staff and externally for their members. They have supported several of our DELP Scholars. 
Why is DEI an important subject for associations?

Research has shown that diverse organizations have DEI efforts because it helps improve the bottom line and because it is the right thing to do. All associations should want to create an environment that is inclusive for their membership. 

Read Next: More DEI Coverage

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About the author
Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.